Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion

The Railway, Winchester

Oliver Gray is from Winchester, an author, reviewer and promoter of Americana shows at the Railway pub venue under the SXSC banner and all round music fanatic. This is his account of the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion gig and meeting an intimidating legend.

It was because of my extreme age that I was selected to be the genial host for Ginger Baker’s show at the tiny Railway in Winchester. All the other guys at the venue are in their twenties and were, frankly, intimidated by the thought of the great man about to grace the back room of the pub. It certainly seemed surreal; Ginger is a superstar, a legend, surely the biggest star ever to have played the Railway. And the people there quite rightly wanted everything to run smoothly. They needed someone to meet, greet and keep an eye open.

Well, I’d seen and loved Cream, kept abreast of his famously dissolute lifestyle, worshipped his drumming and read the autobiography. It was going to be a doddle, a privilege, and fun.

But that was before “Beware Mr Baker”, the documentary about Ginger which appeared, with uncanny accuracy, just before the start of the tour, of which the Railway was the very first date. All of a sudden, my friends were taking the piss in a major way. It didn’t help that I’d just completed a novel centred around an innocent person being murdered in a music pub, and that apparently the film starts with Mr Baker using his walking stick to break the nose of the director, who had had the temerity to mention Jack Bruce. Facebook positively lit up with comments speculating on my chances of survival. Someone even sent me an anonymous threatening postcard purporting to come from Ginger.

Was I worried? Actually, no. If he turned out to be as big a bastard as the reviews were saying, at least I wouldn’t be surprised. I had no intention of saying anything to inflame his ire, and a friend who had seen him recently said he was completely harmless. I suspected, and still suspect, that many of the articles in the papers were re-hashed press releases designed to sensationalise the film and put bums on seats.

I was more worried about the audience than about Ginger. Many of them would be decrepit, and the small size of the room meant that we didn’t have room for more than a few chairs. Others, towards the back, would be unlikely even to catch a glimpse of their hero, and might complain. Recently, we’ve had trouble with irritating people talking loudly during shows (they nearly ruined an appearance by Terry Reid) and I might have to shut them up. My greatest fear was that some idiot might call out for Cream numbers, in which case the shit really would have hit the fan.

Jim, the Railway’s booker, had prepared well. He’d bought every last item on the rider, prepared the dressing room, printed out running orders, “Quiet Please” signs and a full page of instructions for me. My job was to get to the Railway at 4 pm, when the band would allegedly arrive, and generally attend to their every wish. But in fact, the only person there at four was tour manager Doug, an implausibly young but very friendly individual, whose job was to do pretty much everything. He explained that Ginger himself would simply be collected from his hotel at 8.15 and walk straight onstage without sound checking. This sounded like a recipe for disaster to me, but I had reckoned without the super-efficiency of Doug, who took two meticulous hours to set up Ginger’s enormous drum kit and its numerous attendant percussion nick-nacks, before sound checking comprehensively on his behalf. Blimey, I thought, Ginger’s going to have to go some to be better than his drum tech.

The other band members gradually arrived. There was the very affable Alec Dankworth, an absolute dead ringer for his famous dad. Normal sax player Pee Wee Ellis was absent, being replaced, just for one show, by another impossibly youthful musician called Josh Arcoleo (whose name Ginger later amusingly forgot). This is never going to work, I thought, but the moment he played his first note, it was clear he was a virtuoso and completely unfazed by the potentially intimidating situation. Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo was full of joie de vivre and obviously very concerned about Ginger’s welfare. All of them exuded concern that nothing should happen which could upset him.

A potential problem came up straight away, and that was how to handle the interval between the two sets. The dressing room was up two flights of stairs, and Ginger doesn’t really do stairs. An alternative would be to come into the front bar, but Ginger certainly doesn’t do mingling with the fans. Or he could hang around outside, but it was freezing cold, windy and pouring with rain. No one liked the idea of coming off stage all sweaty and potentially catching a cold at the beginning of a lengthy tour. In the end, a compromise was agreed whereby he would sit in the upstairs bar, which was almost empty.

By way of preparing the young saxist, a very lengthy sound check then took place, so lengthy that, by the time the rest of the band went to a local restaurant for dinner, it was clear that the start time was going to be missed. The audience didn’t seem bothered or even to notice, but I was getting twitchy as the inevitable happened: Doug arrived with Ginger in his car and was about to enter the stage door when the band wasn’t even in the building. As he stepped out, wearing a beige cardigan and a woolly hat, he looked dangerously frail. I ran up and, with no introductions taking place, guided him slowly to the upstairs bar to wait. The downstairs bar was full of fans, who were transfixed to see their hero ambling past the pool table and up the stairs. Shall I try to engage him in conversation? I wondered, instead deciding to go in search of the band.

Eventually all were convened and I pushed through the audience to open the side door and let them in. It was instantly obvious that all was going to go well. The room was warm and packed, and the affection that greeted Ginger as he entered was quite moving. He was smoking a cigarette, which caused a great laugh. Still a rebel! He stubbed it out in the ashtray which forms part of his kit. He looked a completely different person, back straight upright, and as soon as he started to play, he lost twenty or thirty years in a flash. Has he still got it? He sure has.

I’d forgotten that jazz shows are peppered with audience applause for every solo. And boy, were there solos. Each number started with a sax riff, proceeded to some improvisation, a bass solo, a percussion solo, more improvisation, a drum solo and finally back to the riff. The quality of the playing from all four members was quite astonishing. What’s more, all of them, including Ginger, were smiling at each other. “That’s a good sign,” said Doug, standing like a coiled spring, ready to leap into action at the slightest sign of a problem. “They don’t always smile.”

After 40 minutes, it was time for the interval, so out we came again, down the side alley and into the upstairs bar again. Would they like a beer? No, but a coffee would be nice. I went and made a couple of Nescafés, and that was when I had my conversation with Ginger Baker. I could only carry two cups, and as I placed them on the table, he looked up at me dolefully.

“Milk!” he said gruffly.

“Of course.” I turned round to go and get it.

“Sugar!” he called out after me. I nodded, returning shortly later with both.

“Spoon!” Damn, I’d forgotten the spoon.

Then it happened, as I came back with the spoon. “Fank yew,” he said, and smiled. Now according to Ginger’s reputation, he should at the very least have nutted me for my forgetfulness, but not at all. Ginger Baker was thanking me. It’s been a good night, I thought, and it was only going to get better. The second set was even more exciting, with the audience reaching fever pitch.

What I only found out later was that Ginger had had a barney with the security guy, who had told him off for smoking in the building. But he seemed to get over it very quickly, and Doug made a point of going to the security man and apologising. The second set started with a typically abrupt introduction from Ginger:

“The smoking laws in this country are absurd. So we don’t get cancer, they make us smoke outside, so we all catch pneumonia.”

And then, before the last number, noticeably out of breath (a man half his age would have been):

“This will have to be the last number, that is unless you want to watch me die onstage.”

This drew a bitter-sweet round of applause.

There was no encore, of course. Ginger was into the car and off into the night in a flash. The others hung around for a while, saying how much they’d enjoyed it. Doug, stuffing the remains of the rider into his bag, even said, “See you next time.”

So there might be a next time? Yes please.

© Oliver Gray 2013

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